5 Mar 2008

"Histories" by Herodotus

Tourist caravan at Giza
[Above - Tourist caravan at Giza]


The Histories, written by Herodotus of Halicarnassus in the fifth century BC (around 484 BC to 425 BC), were intended to document the reasons why the Greeks came into conflict with the Persians. To do this, Herodotus often ‘digresses’ in his works to talk about other cultures that came into contact with the Greeks and Persians (as well as discussing the different city-states of Greece) to help lay out a foundation to the characteristics of these peoples. Three of his largest ‘digressions’ are concerning that of the Scythians, Libyans (Africans), and that of the Egyptians. The Egyptian ‘digression’ takes up the bulk of the second book of the Histories (there are nine books - or to be more precise papyrus rolls - that make up these works...although, dividing them into books is a modern conception), named Euterpe. There are lots of disagreements about whether Herodotus started out his works as discussing the Persia/Greece conflicts and added the information on other cultures to give background data, or whether he started out as an ethnographer. This is because of the sheer amount of detail he put into laying out the geography, topography, customs, and natural wonders of places like Egypt, that it could be said that this work was started first and the Persian and Greek wars were simply added to that.
One of the things that Herodotus goes into detail about in his Histories is the shape of the known world. The common belief at his time was that the world was split into three continents - Europe, Libya, and Asia - but unlike Herodotus’ view, it was thought that these continents were all of equal size. Herodotus argued that this was wrong due to the fact that it was said that Phoenician sailors had circumnavigated the Libyan continent, whereas Europe had never been circumnavigated, so therefore it must be larger than Libya. Though, Herodotus does even appear dubious that Libya had been circumnavigated either, but he was willing to accept the rumours for what they were by including it in his books. Herodotus does believe in some form of symmetry in the continents, however, as when he discusses how long he believes that the Nile might be, he says that it is as long as the Danube in Europe. Suggesting that one long river in Europe is probably the same length as another long river in Libya or Asia.
Herodotus is what we might today call a tourist. He travelled far and wide, to places like Russia, Scythia, and Egypt; being in Egypt in around 450 BC. Now, his works are a great source of information for modern Egyptologists, as he was an eyewitness to the Egyptian way of life during the Late Period, and he documents things about Egypt from earlier periods that we no-longer have written evidence for, like mummification techniques. However, some people believe that Herodotus should not be trusted at all, as he does happen to get some things incorrect, but it must be remembered that Herodotus did not speak the Egyptian language and was probably communicating through translators to tour guides and priests, so some misunderstandings were likely to occur. But for the most part, Herodotus does seem to have wanted to document facts, and did so with some accuracy. So long as people when reading his works do so with some caution, and try to always find other evidence that supports Herodotus’ ideas, or at least points in that direction, then I would say that the work of Herodotus is a very valuable tool to use in the study of ancient Egypt.
When composing his second book of the Histories, he seems to show two very contradicting views of the ancient Egyptians. On the one hand, the Egyptians were described as being older and wiser than the Greeks. This is due to the fact that the Egyptians had memories that stretched much further back than the Greeks, meaning that the Egyptians had recorded events that pre-dated anything recorded by the Greeks, so the Greeks tended to believe that the Greek gods originated in Egypt. In this view, Herodotus is saying that whomever were around first must have specific knowledge first and therefore taught it to surrounding cultures. He does not seem to believe that two cultures can come up with similar things independantly, or that one culture may be older than another but just not have kept records of past events for as long. On the other hand, many of the Egyptian's customs and traditions were seen by Herodotus as backwards in comparison to the Greek way of doing things (Herodotus thought that his way, or more accurately, the Greek way was normal). Herodotus notes that in cultures outside of Egypt women stay home to do business, whereas in Egypt it is men who stay at home weaving when the women go out to do business. He also says that in other cultures men urinate standing up, whilst women do so sitting down, but in Egypt they urinate the opposite way around: men squatting down and women standing up. Another thing is that their mourning rituals are different, because in Egypt people generally shave their hair but after someone close has died they let it grow, whereas elsewhere people would shave their hair to mourn the dead. Herodotus does admit, however, that the circumstances are somewhat different when a beloved pet has died in Egypt, as then, in the case of cats, the mourners would shave off their eyebrows, and in the case of dogs, they would shave their entire body.
Even more fascinating are the things that Herodotus believed that the Greeks derived from the Egyptians. According to his informants, the Egyptians believed that they themselves had discovered the year, its division into twelve months, images, altars, temples, and the significant names of the twelve gods. The significant names of the twelve gods probably does not mean that Egyptians named the deities that the Greeks and other cultures then adopted, as often gods that are later thought to be the same gods have different names in different places. What it possibly does mean is that the Egyptians discovered the basic attributes of the individual gods and they were named accordingly by their respective cultures. Although there were lots of borrowing of religions in the ancient world, the Greeks could not have got their whole religion from the Egyptians, because the two religions are very different, but to the Greeks the gods were not their gods, but the gods. Therefore, it makes sense for them within their polytheistic religions, to suppose that the gods of all cultures were the same entities, but were just named differently.
According to Herodotus, the land of Egypt had been built up many years ago by the silt from the Nile (this is where Herodotus’ famous statement of “Egypt is a gift of the river” comes from…it means that Egypt could not have existed without the Nile); the Nile Delta originally being a gulf that silted up during the course of thousands of years. This was not only told to him by priests in Egypt, but he also saw himself that the Delta projected out from the coastline into the Mediterranean, and there was salt in the soil and seashells on the land: proving in Herodotus’ mind that what was once water is now land. In Herodotus’ discussion about the geography of Egypt, he also includes some theories on how the Nile floods each year. He relates the ideas he has heard on this matter, what he thinks to those ideas, and what he personally believes about Nile’s inundation. One such theory is that the summer northerly winds are said to make the Nile waters rise. Herodotus notes, however, that there have been many years that these winds did not blow, yet the Nile still rose. Also, Herodotus relates that other rivers in Syria and Libya are not affected like the Nile by northern winds. Another account that Herodotus was given is that the Nile flows from the River Ocean. The River Ocean was believed to surround the continents, but seeing as Europe had never been circumnavigated and therefore the River Ocean had never been seen by anyone, Herodotus was doubtful of the existence of such an ocean. A third notion that is accounted for in the Histories is that the inundations were caused by melting snow. This is now known to be an accurate reason for the floods, as melting snow and summer rains in the Ethiopian highlands would send a torrent of water the Nile’s way. The view of Herodotus was that there could not have been snow south of Egypt because the further south you travel the hotter the climate is. The hot winds that blow from the south lent weight to this theory, so it made sense - Herodotus not knowing of the equator, whereby once you pass it the effects of the climate begin to reverse themselves…hence, if you travel south enough you indeed find snow - and therefore, Herodotus was uncertain about this theory, too.
Herodotus came up with his own idea to explain the inundation, which stated that the flooding of the Nile was caused by the sun. He believed that winter storms in Libya caused the sun to go off its course. Herodotus’ understanding was that many rivers are fed by rainwater in the winter when the sun is off-course, but seeing as rainfall is rare in Egypt, the water was not kept full in the winter, so when the sun came back on-course during the summer he believed that the summer sun evaporated the Nile’s water. Therefore, it was believed by Herodotus that it was more a case of the Nile receding in the summer heat rather than it overflowing: this would mean that the normal level of the river was at its flooded level and not its receded level. This is a very well thought up explanation and shows just how logical the mind of Herodotus was.
Other than the Nile, Herodotus speaks of other natural wonders to be found in Egypt, such as their animal life. He describes mythical creatures like the phoenix and flying snakes, and also gives some details on existing fauna: the crocodile and the hippopotamus. He explains the crocodile with a certain amount of accuracy (enough to guess that he had likely seen one in person, even if he had not been able to study it very well), but the explanation of the hippopotamus seems to indicate that he took the name "hippopotamus" too literally (hippopotamus in Greek means "river horse"), by suggesting that the hippopotamus has a mane, a tail, and neighs like a horse. Therefore, we can draw to the conclusion that it is unlikely that he ever even saw a hippopotamus himself, but he never states so in his own words. Herodotus spends some time discussing Lake Moeris, whereby he suggests that it was manmade and had two pyramids standing near the centre with a colossal statue of a seated person on top of each pyramid. Lake Moeris is actually natural; not manmade, though rulers are known to have performed severe irrigation projects in this area to make it more fertile, so it was often assumed that Herodotus was possibly mistaken in his assessment of this place and probably never visited the area himself. Discoveries by one person, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, may have lent some weight to Herodotus' writings on this subject: he found the cartouche of Amenemhat (III) on a piece of red granite and the nose from a colossal statue (from this artefact he could conclude that the statue was originally thirty-six feet high!) by two stone platforms that Karl Richard Lepsius had earlier said must be the pyramids to which Herodotus referred. Petrie claims that these two pyramids were actually statue bases that were obscured by the inundation waters. Possibly something akin to the Colossi of Memnon, which are a pair of statues made to represent Amenhotep (III) seated on a throne, erected at Waset (Thebes)?
He also documents the manmade wonders in Egypt, most notably, the Pyramids. His discussion of the Pyramids points out that he was extremely observant but was often led astray by his guides. The calculations concerning the sizes of the pyramids that Herodotus made were very close to being correct, as were his statements of which pharaoh had which pyramid constructed. Yet, when he asked his Egyptian guide to tell him what the hieroglyphs on the pyramids say, he is told that they account how much money was spent on radishes, onions, and garlic, which sounds completely wrong. Why would a king have his tomb constructed and then list the provisions he paid his workers on the outside of the monument? One explanation for this guide's error could be that he did not know how to read hieroglyphs, saw pictures of things like onions in the text, and guessed its meaning accordingly. Herodotus was also told that the Great Pyramid at Giza, belonging to the pharaoh Khufu, was built by 90,000 men working three months at a time. When you consider that this could mean that the workers were on some form of rotation and when you include the farmers and other 'unskilled' labour that was needed to contribute to the pyramid project, 90,000 men is a very interesting figure. It could have been a guess or rough estimate made by his informants, as by Herodotus' day the pyramids at Giza were already almost 2,000 years old, so unless records of these building projects had been kept in Egypt (which is not entirely impossible), it is likely that this figure was only known via oral tradition. The Great Pyramid is also said by Herodotus to have been built using machines. What he meant by "machines" has long been the subject of controversy in Egyptology, but judging from the words of Herodotus, surviving evidence, and controlled modern experiments, it is usually supposed that Herodotus was talking about levers. These levers probably worked as a counterbalance - similar to the use of the shaduf - to either haul the blocks up each level of the pyramid or to heave the blocks around the outerfaces of the pyramid via ramps. Herodotus remarks that Khufu is believed to have been buried on an island surrounded by water underneath the Great Pyramid; in the book The Tomb in Ancient Egypt by Aidan Dodson and Salima Ikram, it is proposed that this comment made by Herodotus could be in connection with an "Osiris Shaft" situated close to the causeway of Khafra's pyramid at Giza. This Late Period shaft was constructed so that the sarcophagus would be surrounded by water from the ground at the bottom of the pit; probably a symbolic shaft of some kind to represent the tomb of the Underworld god, Usir [Osiris]. Another oddity is that throughout his work, even when documenting the pyramids at Giza, Herodotus not once mentions the Great Sphinx. Whether this was because at times the Great Sphinx becomes covered in the desert sands, so at that time it did not appear particularly impressive, or because he simply never even visited the Giza Plateau and therefore never saw it firsthand, is unknown. It is even possible that Herodtus just did not care to include the Great Sphinx into his account.
Herodotus gives us the most detailed account we have concerning the mummification of humans in ancient Egypt. Of course, the likelihood of him having actually witnessed a mummification himself is very doubtful, as these practices were considered trade secrets by the Egyptians, which is why mummification techniques do not appear to have ever been put in writing; the knowledge would have been passed down from father to son. Firstly, he speaks of the funerary rituals where women tear at their hair and clothes and throw sand over their heads. There are many private tombs in existence to this day that attest to this account, where women are depicted among the funeral procession wailing, beating at their chests, throwing sand over themselves, and pulling at their hair and clothes. Herodotus also notes that there were different types of mummifications you could have done depending on how much the person could afford. The embalmer would show the customer three different statues corresponding to the three different types of mummification procedures that were available in his shop. Relating what he was told, Herodotus says that the actual mummification consisted of the brain removed via the nasal canal with an iron hook. Next, a man drew a red line on the abdomen, another man called the “slitter” cut open the abdomen with a “sharp Ethiopian stone” (obsidian), the internal organs were removed from this opening, and the cavity was cleaned with palm wine and pounded spices, then filled with aromatic substances, including myrrh and cassia. The body was then placed in natron (sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate) and left to dehydrate for seventy days. (Interestingly, elsewhere it states that mummies were left to dry for thirty-five days. In an experiment conducted by Bob Brier to test out some theories into the methods of mummification, Brier found that after thirty-five days the body still retained some of its moisture, which would have helped greatly in the wrapping stage of the mummification. A completely dried up stiff corpse is not going to be easy to wrap, and placing the body in a specific pose is going to be completely impossible!) The Greek word that Herodotus uses to describe this act is one that was used to preserve fish, so it has often led to confusion. There were two common ways to preserve fish in the ancient world, one was to salt the fish dry and one was to place the fish in a pickling solution, so which method was Herodotus referring to when he was describing the Egyptian mummification practices? Common acceptance nowadays is that they salted the corpse in dry natron, but there is always the possibility that Herodotus meant that the corpse was pickled in a solution of natron and then left to dry.
After the period left in natron, the body would be wrapped in linen strips which had been coated in gum on the underside. Herodotus then says that the body was placed in a wooden anthropoid coffin which was stored in the burial chamber upright against the wall. Tombs that have been discovered with ther entombed occupant still present, have shown that coffins were stored lying down, often inside a sarcophagus. Although, Herodotus' reference to a standing coffin, could be in acknowledgement of a ritual that was performed just prior to the entombment, called the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, where the coffin was stood upright whilst the priests performed the ceremony.
There were two other cheaper methods of mummification that Herodotus accounts. The first is were cedar oil is injected into the anus and then stopped up to prevent any leakage. The body would then be immersed in natron to dry out. After the drying process, the oil would be allowed to drain out, and it would carry out with it the stomach and intestines in liquid form. The final option for mummification was to flush out the intestines from the body and then dry the body in natron for the seventy days.
As stated by Herodotus, Egyptian priests told him that the Egyptians could trace their ancestry back 341 generations, which Herodotus calculated to be approximately 11,340 years. Herodotus says that when the Greek philosopher, Hecataeus of Miletus, travelled to Egypt, he told the Egyptian priests that he could trace his own ancestry 16 generations, and when he did so he came to a god in his lineage. The priests of Egypt reckoned that throughout their entire traceable history of 341 generations they never came to a deity in their descent, as the gods had never intermingled with man. This statement from the Egyptians presents problems for the Greeks due to their own beliefs in the Heroic Age. Herodotus places the Heroic Age - the time when divine events took place in Greece - around 800-900 years before his own time, but the deities amongst the ancient Egyptians must have occurred at least 11,340 years before his own day if the Egyptian priests are to be believed. Herodotus does not seem to have a problem in assuming that the deities are much older than Greek tradition would say, however, he never settles the question of how the Heroic Age occurred in Greece if the gods had not been amongst mankind in over eleven-thousand years. It could, of course, easily be assumed that the gods visited the Greek people later than they visited the Egyptians, but Herodotus never states such a thing himself.
Another problem that Herodotus raises, is when he says that the Greek god Heracles is the same entity as one of the twelve Egyptian gods. The Egyptians never limited their pantheon to twelve gods like the Greeks did, but according to Herodotus, the Egyptian priests told him that 17,000 years ago the Egyptians had expanded their pantheon from eight gods to twelve gods. This causes serious problems, as the Greek Heracles started out as a hero from around the time of the Greek Heroic Age, whom was later deified, so how can a Greek god be the same entity as an Egyptian god that was around 17,000 years beforehand, when only eight or nine-hundred years ago that same Greek god was a human hero of Greece? Herodotus explains this by actually denying that the two Heracles (the Egyptian god and the Greek hero) were in fact the same entities, and that the Greek Heracles was never deified.
To show his agreement about the age of Egypt which was told to him by Egyptian priests, Herodotus lists and discusses the past rulers of Egypt. In other words, he does not just accept that what was told to him by the priests as fact, he tries to again back it up with his own calculations and observations. The Egyptian priests told him of three-hundred and thirty Egyptian kings, which included eighteen Ethiopian pharaohs and one female pharaoh. His discussions on the early kings are not particularly detailed and is often jumbled up, but once he makes his way into discussing the Late Period when the Persians ruled Egypt, his information becomes very detailed and accurate. But unfortunately he ends this discussion with Cambyses’ (II) expedition against Egypt in 525 BC, because Herodotus’ main reason for writing this account was to document the cultures that are conquered by the Persians, once he accounts that Cambyses (II) now rules Egypt, he does not go on to relate any of the rulers that follow him.
Why did the Persians come into conflict with the Egyptians? Well, Herodotus accounts the reason in three different versions. The first is where the Persian ruler asks the Egyptian pharaoh, Amasis (II), to send him an eye doctor (it was not unheard of for the Egyptian doctors to be requested by foreign rulers due to their renowned skill in medicinal practices). Amasis (II) agrees to his request and sends the eye doctor to the Persians, but this doctor is not happy about being ordered out of Egypt, so when he meets up with the Persian ruler, Cambyses (II), out of revenge to his pharaoh, he mentions that Amasis (II) has a beautiful daughter, and says to Cambyses (II) that he could ask Amasis (II) for his daughter as a mistress. Cambyses (II) likes this idea and the request is sent to Amasis (II). When Amasis (II) receives this request, he does not want to send out his own daughter but also does not want to anger Cambyses (II) by refusing, so instead he sends Cambyses (II) his predecessor’s daughter (a daughter of Apries) in her place, but does not alert Cambyses (II) to the fact that this girl is not the girl he asked for.
Some time later, when Cambyses (II) is talking to his new mistress about her father, she admits that Amasis (II) is not her father and that she is a daughter of Apries, and she was sent to Cambyses (II) to intentionally trick him. Not liking the fact that he had been fooled by the Egyptian king, he decided to invade Egypt. This is the first report. In the second, a young girl was indeed sent to a Persian king from Egypt, but this time it was not Cambyses (II), but Cambyses’ (II) father, Cyrus (or, Cyrus the Great, as he is better known) who gets the Egyptian mistress. The Egyptian girl would have been given to Cyrus at a time when Cambyses (II) was still a young boy, but Cyrus was very pleased with his new Egyptian girl. One day Cambyses (II) sees that his mother is very unhappy and he asks her what is wrong, to which his mother relates her concerns about how Cyrus now has beautiful Egyptian girl and does not pay any attention to her anymore. When the young Cambyses (II) hears this, he tells his mother that once he has grown up he will march on Egypt and turn the country upside-down; making them pay for his mother’s sorrow. Cambyses (II) keeps this in mind when he gets older and indeed goes on to conquer Egypt.
The third version is about a Greek mercenary in the Egyptian army called Phanes. For whatever reason, Phanes did not believe that he was being treat fairly in the Egyptian army, and so he goes to Cambyses (II) and says that with his insider knowledge of how the Egyptian army works, he can lead a Persian invasion on to Egypt. Phanes says that he knows how to obtain water for the campaign when they reach the desert in Syria: he knows of a king of this desert land in which to get the water from, either from the water-filled amphorae delivered from Heka-Ptah (Memphis) that is distributed to depots to supply water for people crossing the deserts (though he does relate that at that specific time of year there are not many of these amphorae in the desert, so it might not work), from the king of this desert supplying camels with water skins, or from pipes made of camel skin that stretch the whole desert to pipe water to the army on their journey. So, Phanes gives Cambyses (II) a secure way of invading Egypt, and that is what he does. When the Persian army meet up with the Egyptian army, the other Greek members of the Egyptian army feel deeply betrayed by Phanes and so they bring forth his sons to the front of the battle, slit each of their throats, and drink their blood mixed with water and wine. Phanes sees all this take place, the battle ensues, and the Persians win. Persia is now in control of Egypt.
Now, Herodotus is reporting these events around seventy-five years after they took place, and he says that whilst travelling Egypt, he was taken to the place where this battle actually happened, and he states that the two armies were still lying separated on the ground (dead Egyptians on one side and the deceased Persians on the other). Herodotus says that he noticed that the skulls of the deceased Persians were paper thin and could be pierced by a pebble, but the skulls of the dead Egyptians were quite thick. When he asked his guides to explain why there were differences in the skulls of the Egyptians to those of the Persians, he was told that the Egyptians' skulls had grown thick due to the sun beaming down on shaven heads; the Persians wore skullcaps, so their skulls stayed thin. This obviously seems like another case of his tour guides getting carried away with their storytelling. The men that joined in the Egyptian army were very well respected individuals, and would have been rewarded with a fairly respectable burial on their death, so it is unlikely that the Egyptian people would have ever considered leaving their own deceased people out on the battleground to rot for seventy-five years. It is quite difficult to understand why the bodies of the two conflicting armies would have been separated either. If we are to believe that they are lying where they fell in battle, the bodies of the Persians and Egyptians would have been mixed up with each other, due to the way hand-to-hand battle operated. The only solution is that they were separated into piles or groups after the battle was over and simply abandoned there, which also does not make much sense. It would seem that Herodotus was shown a partially uncovered cemetery (uncovered by the drifting sands) and was told fantastic tales about this being where the battle took place, therefore, Herodotus pieced together the details of what he saw to make sense with what he was being told.
After finishing up on his ‘digression’ into the Egyptians, Herodotus picks up where he left off with the reign of Cambyses (II). Cambyses (II), now in control of Egypt, sends a herald by boat to the Egyptians to work out the terms of the truce, but when the Egyptians see the herald coming in his boat they tear him to pieces and bring the dismembered body back to the town. The Egyptians are determined not to give up easily. Angered by the murder of his herald, Cambyses (II) then comes in and demolishes the Heka-Ptah region. He takes the next pharaoh, Psamtik (III), under his command, and performs a few acts to find out what kind of a man he is, to test his reactions. Firstly, Cambyses (II) gathers all the noble people of Egypt together and dresses all their daughters - including Psamtik’s (III) daughter - in rags and has them serve the Persian soldiers in front of their fathers. Next, Cambyses (II) has all the young noblemen paraded in front of their fathers with bridles in their mouths, being led to their execution. In both cases, the fathers are weeping at the things their families are being put through, but Psamtik (III) just lowers his head and does not cry. Psamtik (III) then notices an old friend of his, who was a nobleman, reduced to begging from the Persian army; only then does Psamtik (III) finally let the tears flow. A messenger goes to Cambyses (II) and tells him of Psamtik’s (III) reactions. Cambyses (II) wonders why the king only wept when his friend was reduced to begging and not when the sons and daughters of his and his fellow noblemen were being paraded, enslaved, and executed, so he sent his messenger back to question the king. Psamtik (III) answered that the sights of his own family being mistreat was too painful for him to cry, but when he saw his friend reduced to begging he could finally let his emotions out. Cambyses (II) thinks very highly of this response and takes Psamtik (III) back to his palace with him to live with Cambyses (II). Whilst Psamtik (III) is there, however, he plots against the Persians, and so is eventually killed.
Another story which Herodotus relates about the reactions of Cambyses (II) when angered by the Egyptians, is when he goes and digs up the mummified corpse of the pharaoh preceding Psamtik (III), that of Amasis (II), to prod it with sticks, pluck at its hairs, and beat it with whips until it is destroyed. Cambyses (II) did not take into consideration how solid the mummification process renders a corpse and his beatings were not having any effect on Amasis’ (II) body, so he burnt the body instead to destroy it.
It was not long after Cambyses' (II) initial invasion of Egypt in 525 BC that he set off to take control of Ethiopia, too; obviously wanting to expand his rule even further south. Cambyses (II) had heard that in Ethiopia there was a “table of the sun.” It was a legend, whereby the “table of the sun” was a field that the Ethiopians would bring boiled meats to for anyone to eat, and the earth would renew the food brought to it, so Cambyses (II) wanted to know if the legend was true. To do this he sends spies into Ethiopia, but he sends them bearing gifts; a red cloak, golden bangles, wine, and a calcite casket containing myrrh. Cambyses (II) still wishes to invade Ethiopia, and when the spies get there, the Ethiopian king knows their intentions and is unimpressed. The spies hand over the gifts and the Ethiopian king asks how the red cloak is made and what the myrrh is used for. The spies state that the cloak was made by dipping the material in dye and the myrrh is used to perfume the body, to which the Ethiopian king replies that these two items are fraudulent, as one is disguising itself in a colour it is not, and the other is used to disguise someone’s smell. The bangles, the Ethiopian king suggests, reminds him of fetters that the Ethiopians have, which he claims are stronger than the golden bangles that were being offered by the Persian spies. He does like the wine, though, and he says that this could account for why the Persians can live to be eighty years old, but he says that Ethiopians live to be one-hundred and twenty years old by drinking from a specific water-well that the spies were then shown. (On a side note, a fascinating tale that Herodotus tells us in Book III, 101, is that Ethiopians do not have white semen like other people; instead it is black like their skin!) The Ethiopian king, deeply unimpressed as he was, send the spies back on their way with a gift for Cambyses (II). The gift was a huge bow, and it was to be given to the king with the message that once he could string and use a bow as large as that one, then maybe he could invade Ethiopia. When the bow is given to Cambyses (II) he is enraged at the cheek of the Ethiopians and decides to divide his military into two and have two expeditions take place. One half of his army is to go to the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert to burn down the temple of the Amun oracle, and the other half of his army - the half which he himself will lead - will set off to invade Ethiopia. Herodotus accounts that when Cambyses (II) set off on the military expedition to Ethiopia, he did not take enough supplies with him for such a journey and so the army soon had to eat grass to survive and before much longer they even resorted to cannibalism, where the people would draw lots to see who would be killed and fed to his fellow men, before they eventually started starving. It got so bad that Cambyses (II) finally called off the expedition and so they headed back. This depiction of Cambyses (II) by Herodotus is one somewhere between recklessness and insanity, in that he either did not have the intelligence to set up a proper campaign with enough provisions to last the whole journey, or he simply did not care and just expected his army to deal with the starvation.
After returning to Egypt from his failed campaign to Ethiopia, Cambyses (II) goes to Heka-Ptah where he hears the news that his expedition of 50,000 that went to Siwa Oasis have gotten lost in the desert and gone missing. When Cambyses (II) heard about this, the Egyptians were currently celebrating a festival involving the Apis calf, so Cambyses (II) was said to have slaughtered this sacred Apis calf. The Apis Bull was worshipped in Egypt at Heka-Ptah and contained distinctive markings: the bull was black with a white diamond shape in its forehead, doubled hairs in its tail, the design of eagle’s wings on its back and a scarab beneath its tongue. These bulls were said to be conceived by the mother bull when a flash of lightening illuminated the sky, and after she had born the Apis bull she could never have any more calves. There was always an Apis bull alive at any one time - only one - and after that living Apis bull died there would be a search taking place by the priests to find the next Apis bull with the aforementioned markings. During their lifetime, the Apis bull was very well looked after; given its own luxurious place to live with its own harem, and when the bull eventually died it would be mummified, have religious ceremonies dedicated to it, receive offerings, be entombed and worshipped as Usir-Apis (The Osiris-Apis). When Cambyses (II) killed the Apis calf, the Egyptians had been celebrating the finding of the next Apis (in other words, the priests had only just located a calf with the correct markings), but Cambyses (II) had apparently misunderstood the Egyptians’ jubilation as a celebration of his army’s failings at Ethiopia and the Siwa Oasis.
Priests told Cambyses (II) that the Egyptians were celebrating the divine bull that had appeared to them and Cambyses (II) asked to see this supposed divine bull. The Apis calf was brought to him and Cambyses (II) drew a dagger to the calf and attempted to stab the calf in the belly out of revenge for the Egyptians rejoicing his defeats at Ethiopia, but he missed the calf’s belly and stabbed it in the thigh instead. Cambyses (II) then mocked the priests and mocked their ideas of having a god that was flesh and blood that could be harmed. According to Herodotus this Apis calf slowly died from the thigh wound, but Egyptian records do not really concur to this statement. By killing the Apis calf, Cambyses (II) was proving himself as being extremely incompetent and disrespectful of the Egyptians’ religious practices (or at least, he was in the eyes of Herodotus). Egyptian records state that one Apis bull was born in 543 BC and died in 525 BC, and the next one was born in 526 BC and died in 518 BC. Because Cambyses (II) died in 522 BC, it would either mean that the Apis calf took a long time to die (from 522 BC - 518 BC), or it never actually died from the wound in its thigh, or perhaps even the whole story was made up - either by Herodotus or his guides - and no Apis calf was ever injured or killed by Cambyses (II). The Egyptian informants tell Herodotus that the killing of the Apis calf is what drives Cambyses (II) into madness, but Herodotus himself gives another possibility; that of epilepsy (his madness leads him to trespassing into Egyptian temples that were only supposed to be visited by priests and insulting statues of the god Ptah...also, later murdering his brother and marrying his two sisters, one of which he also has murdered, and he additionally executed Persians for very trivial things). Whatever the reason for his madness was, Herodotus accounts that his insanity did exist, as he relates that any rational person knows that one must not make fun of other peoples' traditions, especially those concerning religious ideas. Cambyses (II) apparently later dies from a stab wound to the thigh from his own sword, just like the Apis calf.
Once Herodotus comes to writing the book for of his Histories (Melpomene) about the Scythians (this book is also about the Libyans), he shows the similarities and differences from the cultures to that of the Egyptians. The distinctions made from the Scythians and Egyptians make the two cultures seem like complete opposites. The Egyptians had for a long time been regarded as one of the oldest civilisations around, yet the Scythians considered themselves to be the youngest, so they each symbolised the extreme opposites regarding national age. Scythians have no altars or images of the deities and hardly even know any names of the gods, whereas the Egyptians believed that they themselves had invented worship to the gods and had been actively venerating them for thousands of years. Gender roles were quite different in these two cultures, too, as the Egyptians acknowledged that specific tasks were suited to, and expected of, certain sexes (though they were often considered the reverse of the norm in comparison to other cultures), but the Scythians did not really assign specific jobs or characteristics to a specific gender. To Herodotus these nations represented the extreme oddities of the world at its edges, meaning that the further outwards from the centre of the world you travel, the stranger the people and their customs are likely to be. These two cultures also signify the two most important military missions led by the Persians in the view of Herodotus. There were obvious parallels between these two civilisations, however. One such similarity that Herodotus notes is that neither the Scythians nor the Egyptians will allow the customs of other people to become integrated into their own cultures. Whether this view is correct or not is entirely debateable, as the Egyptians often brought foreign gods into their pantheons, which allowed for smoother transitions into the Egyptian way of life for foreign captives. Both Egypt and Scythia are on the borders of two continents: Egypt between that of Libya and Asia, and Scythia between that of Europe and Asia (the Scythians inhabit the land north of the Black Sea). It is important to note here that the Scythians and Egyptians on their borders of their respective continents are what make it very difficult for the Persians to fully conquer Europe and Libya.
Herodotus obviously was not just interested in documenting worthy characters from history and fantastic events, but also wanted to delve deep into writing about landscapes and customs of many different peoples. Significantly, he finds it very important to list foreign cultures’ ways of living and laws, and comes to the conclusion that any culture would always conclude that their own laws and traditions are the best and the most instinctive or expected ways of all foreign civilisations that they are familiar with. The Roman polotician and orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, was the first person to say that Herodotus was the "Father of History," but he also said that he was given to storytelling. Regardless of this, it took a long time for modern scholars to fully appreciate the works of Herodotus; however, it is interesting to note that the archaeologists that explored Egypt in the 19th century often took the Histories along with them to Egypt as a kind of guide book to the supposed sites that had yet to be rediscovered, or to find the tourist spots that he had outlined in his writings. Herodotus was much more than just a writer of historical events, but some of the historical aspects that Herodotus did touch on, that scholars once expected to be exaggerations or false in his accounts, have recently turned out to have great evidence discovered to support the claims of Herodotus and have persuaded many of his accuracy. Unfortunately, Afrocentrists often take the work of Herodotus and draw it all completely out of context by sugesting that Herodotus got everything absolutely correct in his works, and because of the theory in the Histories that hints that the whole of the Greek culture was born from that of the Egyptians, this fuels Afrocentric ideas that the whole of Western civiisation was born from Africa, or more specifically, Egypt. It is obvious that cultures in the ancient world were greatly influenced by each other, as it is evident that the medicine of the Greeks was hugely influenced by the basics of physician practices that had been operating for thousands of years previously in Egypt, and the Greek kouroi sculptures and Doric columns were greatly influenced by Egyptian architecture, but to say that one cultures' traditions and religion were completely derived from another culture is to drastically oversimplify matters. Besides, since the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 by Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, and the clearer understanding of the ancient Egyptians that stemmed from that, it is obvious that, even though Herodotus is a great source of information, he did get some things wrong, so his works cannot be used as fact overall, but must be studied to separate fact from fiction. Egyptian texts such as The Book of Coming Forth by Day (The Book of the Dead), The Litany of Ra, and The Amduat, as well as many other religious writings, now they can be read, clearly show that the Egyptian and Greek religion were really nothing alike.



Home


____________________________________________________

Egyptian Dreams


Scribes_of_Thoth Forum